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Despite TikTok’s Billion Dollar ‘Data Security Plan,’ American Info is Still Being Shared With China.

The Chinese-owned social media app TikTok claims it has spent $1.5 billion to build a firewall between its United States operations and its parent company, ByteDance, in China. Despite their guarantees, evidence shows the effort has been far less effective than purported, as U.S. user data continues to be accessed by Chinese employees of ByteDance.

Over the past several years, executives at the company promised lawmakers on Capitol Hill that they would effectively wall off American user data, assuaging concerns that the app is being used as a Chinese intelligence asset against American interests. Additionally, TikTok says it has enacted measures to ensure U.S. content is not subjected to censorship from the Chinese Communist Party.

TikTok Uses Back Channels To Share Data With China.

Employees at TikTok‘s Project Texas — a supposedly isolated unit that handles U.S. user data — have routinely been instructed to share files with other departments outside the unit and directly with ByteDance employees. Data sharing often occurs outside official channels, effectively working around the alleged “firewall.” The shared data includes user IP addresses, dates of birth, and email addresses. On top of the backchannel data-sharing, U.S. TikTok employees allege their Chinese counterparts make such frequent changes to the algorithm that they cannot determine if China is censoring U.S. users or accessing unauthorized data.

ByteDance’s U.S. Influence Operation.

The Chinese-based ByteDance has been engaged in a protected negotiation with the U.S. government’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. ever since former President Donald Trump moved to ban the TikTok app in 2020. A federal judge eventually stayed Trump’s executive order banning the social media app — President Joe Biden later abandoned the effort entirely.

Over the next three years, ByteDance ramped up its influence operations in the U.S. to head off a separate effort by lawmakers on Capitol Hill to ban TikTok or at least place restrictions on its use. In 2023, ByteDance spent $7.4 million lobbying efforts to influence U.S. politicians.

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